Decoding Coffee Labels

If you have ever read a bag of coffee closely, you will see many different symbols, terms, and certifications printed all over it. As a consumer, it is hard to know what they all mean, and why they matter when you are buying coffee.

At Charleston Coffee Roasters, we take all of these certifications and terms very seriously as we look to source the very best coffee beans from all over the world from farms that are environmentally and socially responsible. As a company, we adhere to the philosophy that the compassionate treatment of people and the environment inevitably yields higher quality results. Whenever possible, we seek growers and importers that are known to be both environmentally and socially responsible. It is almost always the case that these individuals produce and offer the best quality.

So to help you better understand your next coffee purchase, here is a quick primer on some of the more common certification and farming terms you might run across.


You have likely seen this certification while shopping for fruits and vegetables. Well, coffee is no different. The USDA has created strict guidelines for foods to be labeled as organic. With coffee this refers to how the coffee is grown as well as roasted and packaged.

Organic coffee beans are grown and processed according to a rigorous set of guidelines that are monitored at each stage by an independent certifying agency. The guidelines specify the type of allowable inputs of organic fertilizers, integrated pest management, and other organic weed and fungus controls. Always look for the USDA symbol to be sure your product is organic.

USDA Organic Certified Logo


Rainforest Alliance certification is a comprehensive process that promotes and guarantees improvements in agriculture, forestry and travel. Their independent seal of approval ensures that goods and services were produced in compliance with strict guidelines protecting the environment, wildlife, workers and local communities. Certification gives consumers a say in how farms are managed. Shoppers who want to encourage good land stewardship and ecosystem conservation can shop for certified products.

Sustainable agriculture is at the center of the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts to conserve ecosystems by protecting healthy soils, rivers and wildlife and by promoting dignified living conditions for farm workers and neighboring rural communities.

The unbridled and unsustainable growth of the agriculture industry in recent years has encouraged rampant deforestation and careless agrochemical use. Today agriculture is the number one cause of ecosystem destruction and species loss worldwide. Agriculture occupies approximately one third of the Earth’s total landscape and uses more land and freshwater than any other human activity in the world.
Rainforest Alliance Certified Logo


The Fair Trade Certified™ label is the only independent, third-party consumer guarantee that companies have complied with strict economic, social and environmental criteria for particular products, thereby creating a more equitable and sustainable trade system for producers.

The principal criteria of Fair Trade certification are:

  • Direct trade with farmer organizations, bypassing unnecessary middlemen.
  • Fair prices for farmers, and decent working and living conditions for workers.
  • Free association of workers and farmers, with structures for democratic decision-making.
  • Access to pre-financing, and additional premiums for community and business development.
  • Sustainable agricultural and farm management practices, including restricted use of agrochemicals and no GMOs.

When consumers see a product with the Fair Trade Certified label, they are guaranteed that farmers received a fair price and all of the other benefits of the Fair Trade system. To date, sales of Fair Trade Certified products have supplied nearly $80 million in above-market revenue to millions of farmers, workers and their families in over 50 developing countries worldwide.

Charleston Coffee Roasters purchases coffee from farms that are certified Fair Trade. However, not all growers are eligible for Fair Trade certification; therefore we do not actively use the Fair Trade logo on our products.

Our philosophy is that we strive to maintain long-term, sustainable partnerships with our growers. Premium coffees, such as the ones we use, command prices well above the Fair Trade minimums. We also actively work with partners such as Coffee Kids, Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian to improve the quality of life in coffee-growing communities and the world in which we all live.

Fair Trade Certified Logo


This is very broad term referring to farming practices that emphasize the long-term health of the soil and the environment and those who work and live there. Sustainable agriculture methods include erosion control, composting, shading and biological pest control.


Not necessarily a certification as much as a farming practice, shade-grown coffee refers to coffee trees that are interspersed with various species of trees. The trees intermittently protect the coffee from the direct rays of the sun as shadows are created throughout the day. Most high-quality coffee is grown in the shade because the old varieties (which typically produce the best flavor) require it. The newer, high-yield hybrids are sun trees and grow in open sunlight, consuming more nitrogen from the soil thus requiring higher amounts of fertilizers.


Shade grown coffee plantations play a key role in the conservation of migratory birds that have found a sanctuary in their forest-like environment. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (link to site) encourages the production of shade grown coffee, and the conservation of migratory birds, through its “Bird Friendly®” certifications.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee Logo